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Progressive Problem-Solving: Confidently Answering the Unknown

By August 10, 2023August 30th, 2023No Comments

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Progressive Problem-Solving: Confidently Answering the Unknown

Just go ask the boss. Not my job. They don’t listen to me anyway.

You’ve probably heard a coworker or colleague say those words a million times. There is still hesitancy in the 21st-century workplace to accept responsibility for solving a problem.

Too often, employees wait for a task to be shoved down the food chain instead of taking the initiative to speak up. That’s not their fault, but it’s not necessarily that of management, either.

A 2019 study featured in the Harvard Business Review found that it is not only a “stuck-in-their-ways” approach for managers that stifle employee ideas but a lack of empowerment to act on that input from below.

Because they can’t quickly act on any ideas, they don’t even seek them out—despite knowing that their team members likely have better insight than them, given their time on the front line.

Creating that empowered atmosphere is difficult, though, which is why the culture of a manager being responsible for solving every high-level problem has persisted.

I recently got to sit down with Atif Rafiq for the Success Story Podcast. Atif has one of the most varied and impressive resumes I’ve ever seen, with executive roles at companies like Amazon, Volvo, MGM, and McDonald’s.

As he explained, whether you’re selling burgers, cars, or resort packages, decision-making and problem-solving—informed, collaborative decision-making and problem-solving—are at the core of business success.

Gathering independent insight

One of the biggest issues is that there are rarely any processes for gathering employee insights.

I’m not talking about feedback.

I’ve written about that side of the coin a lot lately. Make sure your decisions resonate with employees and make their experience better. But that is a reactive approach, and what I’ve been thinking about more recently is making it proactive instead.

Get as many insights as possible before the decision-making progress even starts to ensure you’re focusing on the right thing.

Atif called it moving downstream work upstream. Take the pressure off by allowing the ideas to flow without needing to solve a problem by a certain deadline or within a certain budget.

Gather independent information, and you’ll start seeing patterns. Some might call this data-driven decision-making, but it is slightly different. Instead of learning how to fix it through feedback, this will raise questions you would have never considered.

The unknown.

Confidently venture into the unknown

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld

This quote—regardless of its context—has always fascinated me. Because as you start to accept that there are unknown unknowns, it starts to make you question all of the things you think you do know.

It is a twist on the Johari window from Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham. Very simply (don’t call my psychology professor), the Johari window is a two-by-two matrix that includes things known both to self and others, known to self and unknown to others, unknown to self and known to others, and unknown to both self and others.

It looks like this, with the quadrants called Arena, Façade, Blind Spot, and Unknown, respectively.

While the Johari window technique is based on how subjects see themselves, others, and the relationship between the two, it is a nice visualization of my point.

Too often, we, as managers and executives, try to act on the facade. Show our employees that we have the answers and that they just need to learn from our experience.

Some of us, especially the successful ones, may be embracing the blind spot. Accepting that we don’t know everything and must ask for help.

But the true outliers, the companies and leaders that affect change in industry, sector, and the world, are the ones that confidently stride into the unknown. The ones willing to gather the right people, ask the right questions, and find answers they didn’t even know they needed.

The steps of progressive problem-solving

Here’s where I’ll borrow a little from Atif, and his brilliant, decades-long career leading organizations to new heights. There are three major phases in this new mindset that I’ll call progressive problem-solving.


During this phase, the focus should be gathering as much information as possible from various sources. This includes not only internal stakeholders such as employees and management but also external sources such as customers, the market, and industry trends.

Nothing should be off the table during this stage—the key is to explore as much as possible without any preconceived notions or biases about the problem or the best solution.

Ask questions!

Inquiry is a crucial part of the exploration phase. This is the time to engage with multiple perspectives, wild ideas, outlier viewpoints, and even clear dissenting opinions.

Ask open-ended questions, encourage new ways of thinking, and foster a culture where every idea is worth consideration. Seek to understand, not validate assumptions. This can provide invaluable insights that can help uncover novel solutions.

Create a common challenge

Take the gathered insights and define the problem you are trying to solve. This should be a collaborative process that includes everyone. Everyone must comprehensively understand the problem and the clear parameters surrounding the challenge.

This creates a common goal for everyone to target and unifies the team’s mission.


Once the problem is defined, it’s time to get everyone on the same page for a solution. The alignment stage involves sharing the insights collected, collaborating and brainstorming on potential solutions, and gaining agreement on a unified way forward.

This also sets the stage for realistic approaches, expectations, and contribution methods toward problem-solving.

Converging on a solution

Through sharing ideas and open communication, the team should start converging on feasible solutions for the problem. The goal at this stage isn’t to rush towards a resolution but to identify the optimal solution everyone can align with.

Yes, but…

Ever taken an improv class? One of the first exercises is “Yes, and…” where you are supposed to build off whatever the other performer has started. This often leads to wild, unexpected scenarios.

You don’t necessarily want to go down that path in the business setting, but a slight tweak can make it an effective tool.

While encouraging open communication, also ensure that constructive criticism is welcomed. The “Yes, but…” technique can be particularly useful during this stage where instead of outrightly dismissing an idea, be open to thinking about its potential modifications or improvements.


Once there’s alignment on the solution, it’s time to start moving downstream. Clear roles and responsibilities should be established, and a detailed plan of execution should be structured. It is critical for team members to understand their role in the plan and to remain flexible for adjustments.

But remember that at this point, there’s still no risk involved. No budget has been allocated, no resources spent. Team members should feel comfortable expressing doubt about their role or pushing for a bigger one.

Clearly lay out the actions that everyone will commit to and push toward a final decision.

Building the think tank

One last thing. Stop putting up walls.

When you’re looking for answers, or jumping off a cliff into the unknown, the last thing you want to do is isolate yourself. Involve as many different people as you can from varying departments.

Think of it this way.

What competencies do we need for this idea—not which positions. “We should get marketing in on this” isn’t as good as “We should get a creative design mind in the room.”

Part of this will have to come during the hiring process, but that conversation is for another day. For now, the takeaway is to build think tanks that include people who you might not normally tap. A customer support employee for a product design conversation, or a finance manager for a public relations decision.

Not everyone is limited by the department they work in.

Final thoughts

There’s so much more to consider from my talk with Atif, and his newsletter on LinkedIn is a must-follow for anyone who seeks business success. If you want to listen to the entire interview with him, head over to the Success Story YouTube page.

For now, I’m going to stop avoiding the unknown and focus on involving more people in my own decision-making process. I’d love to hear how you go about it!

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